Ruth Brandon: Hong Kong's nifty solution to traffic gridlock

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Hong Kong island is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. It beats even New York's notorious Lower East Side in the early 20th century, when immigrants slept 12 to a room, in shifts.

Hong Kong island is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. It beats even New York's notorious Lower East Side in the early 20th century, when immigrants slept 12 to a room, in shifts.

Hong Kong solves the problem differently. In an island-city built on the slopes of a mountain, the only way to go is up. And up, and up. The big costs are driving the piles and laying the foundations. After that, the more floors a developer adds, the more money he makes.

The result is a thick forest of enormous skyscrapers. But on the forest floor, the feel is oddly old-fashioned. And after a while you realise that this is to do with cars - or rather, their absence.

None are parked along the kerbs and few are visible on the streets. The vehicles you see are buses and taxis. It is an invariable rule, throughout the world, that as soon as people can afford a car, they buy one. But in this wealthy city, with one of the world's highest per capita salary rates, only 3 per cent of the population owns a car.

How has Hong Kong bucked the trend?

Partly, it is to do with the absurd expense of garaging. The streets are too narrow to permit on-street parking, and a parking space, so a Hong Kong friend assured me, costs the same as a London flat: the figure he quoted was £50,000. Perhaps he meant a London cupboard. Still, it's a lot for a parking spot. On the other hand, in Hong Kong, with the world's highest per capita salary level, few would find this an insuperable barrier.

The real reason is geography. The Lower East Side was packed tight because everyone had to be able to walk to work: in Hong Kong, despite ever more extensive land reclamation schemes, everyone can still walk to work if they want to.

If not, they take a bus. And because everyone uses the transport system, it is excellent. If you miss a bus, another arrives within minutes. The most modern section of London's Tube system (the Jubilee Line extension) is modelled on Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway. There are trams, light rail systems and shoals of taxis.

But Hong Kong's real innovation is its escalator. Clearly, it is the wealthiest people who are most likely to buy and use cars; and in Hong Kong, the wealthier you are, the higher up the mountain you live.

By the early Nineties, a decision had to be taken about commuter traffic; and it was decided that rather than widen the upper roads to make them car-friendlier, a system of escalators and travelators might get people from the upper levels to the central downtown district just as fast and without the traffic jams.

The result is the world's longest covered outdoor escalator system, 800m long, with a vertical climb of 135m. It is the equivalent of several miles of road and the full ride takes 20 minutes.

Before the escalator was built, city planners were dubious about it. But it has been extraordinarily successful. It carries 35,000 people a day, running downhill from 6am to 10am, as people go in to work, and uphill thereafter, until it closes at midnight. Not only is it convenient, it has brought new trade and prosperity to all the areas along its route. Now a second escalator is planned: one down, one up.

So is Hong Kong basking in its car-free glory? Bizarrely, not. A new motorway is planned on reclaimed land beside the harbour. Ostensibly, this is to relieve traffic jams, which even exist in Hong Kong. But as every traffic engineer knows, the effect will simply be to generate more car use.

Today, owning a car in Hong Kong is little more than a symbol that you can afford one. Might it not be better to keep things that way? One way or another, Hong Kong will soon find out.

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